SEOUL, South Korea – The gaze of the “Statue of Peace” is a reminder that the comfort women’s shameful and negative memories should not be forgotten, but be remembered instead.
During my recent visit to Seoul, I saw the first “Statue of Peace” in front of the Japanese Embassy which was installed on December 14, 2011.
The small bronze figure depicts a girl sitting on a chair, staring straight ahead with a look of determination. She has cropped hair and wears a hanbok — a traditional Korean dress. She’s barefoot. Her fist is clenched. Next to her is an empty chair.
The gaze is directed at the Japanese Embassy in Seoul as a call for vigilance in their campaign for justice as the varied stories and individual memories of ‘comfort women’ tend to be neglected and seem to be transformed into places of amnesia.
The statue is an unsmiling girl frozen in time as a teenager, at the age when she was forced into sexual slavery by the Japanese imperial military, which seems to evoke empathy for the comfort women’s pain and trauma.
It has become a gathering spot for protest groups related to the Japanese wartime record.
More than 130 identical other statues have been installed across South Korea since 2011.
It was 31 years ago, on August 14, 1991, when South Korean Kim Hak-sun became the first Korean to give public testimony about her experience as a comfort woman victim. Hak-sun died in December 1997 at age 74.
About 200,000 women from Japanese-occupied countries like Korea, China, Burma, New Guinea, Burma, Thailand, Vietnam, Malaya, Manchukuo, Taiwan, the Dutch East Indies, Portugese Timor, and the Philippines were held in captivity and many thousands more were raped as part of one of the largest operations of sexual violence in modern history.
The girls who were abducted, trafficked, or brought to the Japanese soldiers’ camps had their dreams and visions for the future shattered and damaged in utter injustice.
Due to their tender age, it was a painful experience for them to be subjected to sexual slavery, rape, and other forms of sexual violence during World War 2.
The victims have since spent their lives in misery, having endured physical injuries, pain and disability, and mental and emotional suffering. The survivors have had to live a life full of stigma and trauma.
The Women’s Tribunal that sat in Tokyo, Japan from December 8 to 12, 2000, deliberated on the criminal liability of high-ranking Japanese military and political officials, as well as the Japanese state’s responsibility for military rape and sexual slavery.
On July 30, 2007, the United States House of Representatives passed a resolution asking the Japanese government to apologize to former comfort women and for their stories to be included in the curriculum of Japanese schools. The resolution was passed after three former comfort women (one Dutch and two Koreans) testified.
In 2012, the South Korean government declared August 14 as the International Memorial Day for Comfort Women.
South Korean President Moon Jae-in described Japan’s wartime use of comfort women as “crimes against humanity.”
In January 2021, a judge at the Seoul Central District Court ruled in favor of the comfort women, ordering Japan to pay compensation for the first time.
However, another South Korean court in April 2021 upheld Japan’s state immunity to dismiss a lawsuit, contradicting the earlier ruling.
I earlier saw the comfort women statue in San Francisco, California called “Column of Strength” which is one of nine and the first sculpture placed in a major U.S. city to commemorate the comfort women.
It depicts three teen-age girls, with each being of a specific nationality – Chinese, Korean, and Philippine. These three girls are cast in bronze, standing in a circle atop a pedestal and holding hands in a back-to-back posture. Standing next to the pedestal and gazing up at them is another bronze figure of a halmoni (Korean for grandmother).
Lola Rosa Henson was the first Filipina comfort woman to come out on September 18, 1992 with her story, which came a year after Hak-sun’s revelation,
The “Lola” statue initially installed in December 2017 along Roxas Boulevard was dismantled on April 27, 2018. It was an unnamed woman wearing a traditional Filipino dress, blindfolded, with hands clutched to her chest. It was declared missing in August 2019.
Another comfort woman statue – of a young woman with fists resting on her lap – has been removed from the Catholic-run Mary Mother of Mercy shelter for the elderly and the homeless in San Pedro, Laguna, only two days after its unveiling in January 2019.
The remaining Filipina “Lola” statue is now in Pandan, Antique.
The comfort women campaign highlights the urgency as attempts to whitewash history and to distort narratives continue while the number of survivors is diminishing. .
( Atty. Dennis R. Gorecho heads the seafarers’ division of the Sapalo Velez Bundang Bulilan law offices. For comments, e-mail email@example.com, or call 0917-5025808 or 0908-8665786.)